Obama must now make gun control his legacy

Before the public outrage over the Connecticut shooting dissipates, the president must take a stand.

Yesterday morning, a twenty-year-old man in Connecticut woke up, dressed, and stepped out into the cold grey dawn. Then he walked to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and he shot and killed twenty children and six adults, including his mother – to whom his guns belonged – in cold blood. Then, he shot himself.

Soon after the news of the attack broke, White House press secretary Jay Carney released a statement. It said, inexplicably: “today is not the day to talk about gun control.”

Some have pointed out that madmen with guns are not unique to the United States. They point to Dunblane, or Anders Breivik. But after Dunblane, the UK banned handguns – and there has not been a similar attack since. In Britain last year, the sum total of death from gun crime was 39.

In the US, that total was eleven thousand, one hundred and one, and this year is on track to be even higher. Look at it this way: if the Connecticut attack was the only shooting yesterday, then the day's death toll would actually be below average. More people are murdered with guns every year in America than the total number of US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. More than twice as many people die from firearm homicide as in September 11th and Pearl Harbour combined. 31 people are murdered with a gun here every day; and these numbers don't even count accidental deaths. Just murder.

There are countries rent by sectarian violence or war where this is higher, but to my knowledge nowhere is this level of death considered business as usual – or defended as an inalienable right. Many here don't seem able to make the connection that more guns means more shootings. Some have even suggested that tragedy would have been averted had the teachers or others near the scene had guns, turning a blind eye, apparently, to the fact that the guns used belonged to the killer's mother, one of the victims, and were bought legally.

Here's the rub: Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Guns just make it exponentially easier.

The US's love affair with firearms dates back to its independence, the wars with Britain and with Mexico, and its wild frontiers where a gun was a vital tool for self-defence. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the second amendment to the constitution, signed by Thomas Jefferson and adopted into law in 1791. It reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”

The US courts have largely ignored the “well-regulated militia” part of the amendment, however, and choose instead to interpret the constitution as upholding as inalienable an individual's right to carry deadly weapons, from pistols to hunting rifles all the way to military-spec thousand-rounds-a-minute assault weapons.

The killer at Sandy Hook was carrying two pistols and a Bushmaster M4 semi-automatic assault carbine rifle, a weapon designed specifically to get around the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban. It bears about as close a resemblance to “arms” that Thomas Jefferson would have recognised as a hundred-ton battle tank does to a warhorse.

Obama must now make gun-control his legacy. With no further elections to win, and a reinforced popular mandate, as well as the public outrage that will follow from Sandy Hook, an American president will see few opportunities as good as this to force tighter controls on America's gun-owning public. A ban is extreme and impossible; but severe restrictions on assault weapons and high-powered rifles, as well as stricter licensing, tests and registration procedures, would improve the situation. This time does feel different. Vigils are in place at the White House calling for gun control, and an online petition to change the law has already reached 25,000 signatures; the threshold for a government response.

But the gun lobby is extremely powerful. Just three days ago, a circuit court ruled that an Illinois handgun ban was unconstitutional – the case was funded by the National Rifle Association, who have political leverage over much of Congress, too. Their political sway is enormous. In the last election, the NRA outspent all gun-control groups by twelve to one.

If Obama doesn't make a real stand today, the response to this tragedy will be grimly predictable. There will be speechifying in which his sympathy is offered “as a parent” and action vaguely promised. Politicians will proffer their prayers and their tears. But nothing will change.

“As a country, we've been through this too many times,” Obama said in a statement yesterday afternoon, and his voice cracked with genuine emotion. But behind the scenes, he will be being told that any sweeping gun-control legislation is practically a non-starter, especially during fragile negotiations on the fiscal cliff. Of course, gun control can wait, but the debt cieling - that must be dealt with without delay. Gun control can always wait.

But if this very real sense of national anger is not capitalised upon, America will sigh and it will dwindle; just like after Clackamas, after Oak Creek, after Aurora, after Oikos, after Seal Beach, after Tucson, after Fort Hood, after Binghampton, afterBrookfield, after Meridian, after Wedgewood, after Virginia Tech, and after Columbine. The media will briefly obsess over trivial details in the killer's life story, then wring its hands and agonise about its coverage, and then swiftly forget as the cycle turns.

And in six months or a year, another kid with a grievance will pick up another assault rifle, take a breath, and step out into another cold grey dawn.

A candle light vigil outside the White House to remember the victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.